After a few hours in India it became clear that I was in for an experience much more vivid than any image books and films painted in my mind. Flashing scenes of street vendors, potent smells of food and waste, and cluttered sounds of activity and traffic all bombarded my senses. One thing went through my mind one scene after another: “Wow, that’s different.” Here are my notes on a month of differences in everyday life in India.
As the taxi made its way out of the Chennai airport I realized the taxi driver didn’t speak English and therefore didn’t fully understand where to go. Much to my relief, he stopped along the way to ask other taxi drivers to make phone calls to my host and translate the directions. I couldn’t be bothered by these logistics. I was busy watching out the window at what was basically an action movie playing out before me. Shit was going down.
There were people moving everywhere. A man on the side of the road chopped the hell out of some meat with a big meat cleaver with an audience of skirted men watching. Out the other window was a man carrying hundreds of orange packages on a bicycle, but you can’t see him. It looks like a massive pile of packages with legs, riding a bike. Cars, trucks and motorbikes race around him in a cacophony of honking horns.
There’s rubble everywhere. It seems like people take bricks and pieces of old buildings and make piles all over the place when they have nothing to do. Even more prevalent than rubble was trash. Everywhere you look is covered in trash. Then there are the cows wandering all over the place, eating the trash. Lucky for me, I get to eat lovely Indian food.
Food going in…
The food is all good, but I don’t know what it is. Even remembering the name so I can order again is not easy. Curry I know, but tikka masala, gobi manchurian, masala dosa, what the hell is that? Clearly I have a lot to learn.
Just because it’s on the menu, doesn’t mean you’ll get it. About 50% of the time you ask for something they look at you confused and say “not available.” How can it not be available if it’s on the menu? I figure I’m spoiled and accept it. Surely there’s something equally as awesome as the thing I didn’t know what it was and couldn’t get.
Once you find an available choice that sounds good enough to eat, you may find that they don’t give you a fork. It’s because in India, you eat with your hands. It was rather entertaining and liberating. My aunt used to teach me about proper etiquette when eating and now I can’t help but see it as a bit superficial. Put simply, eating is an experience and feeling your food adds to it. Trying to look proper, according to the rituals of some rich asshole in 7th century England takes away from it. I’m sure I’ll still use silverware though, but never more than one fork per meal.
…Food coming out
With the introduction of new food, digestion is a more conscious experience. For a few days I could feel the spices working their way through my guts—and my digestive system can take a beating. Still, it took a few days to adjust.
I had to use the bathroom more often and let’s just say things came out a bit quicker. After my first squat, I was struck with a wave of panic as I noticed the absence of toilet paper. Not good. Then I noticed there was a conveniently located sprayer much like North American kitchen sink sprayers, only these are for your butt. Don’t wipe. Spray. It actually feels somewhat nice given the spices, but have fun learning to spray without making a mess for the next squatter.
For many Indians the toilet seems to be unnecessary. As long as there’s room to stand, men pee there. During a nice sunrise I was taking some photos on the beach when a little man came up and squatted near me. I went about my business until I realized he was pooping. Then I realized he wasn’t the only one. There were more squatters having a nice sunrise poop all along the beach. I couldn’t help but wonder: how many turds had I shuffled over with my flip-flops?
While many people speak English, at least in Tamil Nadu, there’s difficulty understanding them at first, and vice versa. Sometimes I couldn’t understand how they heard “I’ll have two bowls of rice” when I said, “I’ll have a mango juice.” Then amidst the confusion, they just start bobbling their heads. Oh, the head bobble. Where I come from shaking your head left to right means no, up and down means yes. Here they mix the two and it means whatever. Kind of a mix of yes, maybe, okay.
But sometimes it’s not okay. Often you will ask directions to a certain place or what a meal comes with. If they don’t know the answer, they may just make something up and bobble their head. You have no choice but to accept it and/or ask others. I spend a lot of time pretending I understand, but I nod rather than do the bobble—though I am working on my bobble.
Traffic drives on the left and the steering wheel is on the right. Traffic has little order. The rule seems to be stick on the left unless you have a reason not to, in which case you just don’t crash. Drivers are always honking to make their presence known. In fact, if you forget to honk, the words “sound horn” are artfully painted on the back of most vehicles. Where I come from, honking is a last resort before crashing into someone, or else it means “SCREW YOU FOR HOW YOU’VE AFFECTED ME!”
The best way to get around short distances is the “auto,” a yellow, three-wheeled tuk-tuk. They are quite fun from the initial price negotiation to the buzzing between busses and trucks. If you have to go far and the train is not an option, opt for the sleeper bus. How awesome is this: a bus with a bunch of bunk beds. You get on at night, sleep and wake up 8 hours away. There’s no way a bunk bed bus would fly in the litigious U.S. of A.
There are a lot of things that wouldn’t fly back home, and that’s unfortunate. Most Indians get by in this chaos just fine and I admire that. That’s more than I can say about Westerners that whine about imperfection and every little discomfort. While these differences take getting used to, I find that they broaden me as a person. They teach me patience, which is rather ironic.